Pentagon fudges budget cuts, and funds the new face of war

 In Pentagon Spending

Yesterday the Pentagon described their plans to grow defense spending over the next five years, (see the Pentagon’s factsheet here) but ingeniously packaged that growth as “cuts.”

In fact, the only year that sees a drop in spending is 2013, with a baseline number of $525 billion, $6 billion less than 2012. On top of that the administration asks for $88 billion for “overseas contingency operations”, which include the war in Afghanistan. Spending is then projected to increase every year, with the baseline rising to $567 billion by 2017, and the additional overseas contingency ominously marked as “TBD” from 2014-2017.

There are some good things in this budget, like moving two army brigades out of Europe. Taxpayers for Common Sense has a great breakdown of the positive steps made as well as some of the more glaring examples of lard left in this budget. A lot of the real savings in 2013 come from withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. But this administration’s proposal, which brings spending down by 8% from what we were projected to spend over the next 5 years, is far more modest than previous presidents’ post-war build downs that reduced military spending by as much as 30% — especially given the massive buildup in spending over the last decade. Here’s some historical context from Robert Dreyfuss:

Thanks to the Project on Defense Alternatives, we have a pretty good idea of what the long-term trends look like. Base-budget spending skyrocketed 55 percent between 1998 and 2010, adjusted for inflation. (Unadjusted, Pentagon spending pretty much doubled in twelve years.) And “base budgets” don’t include the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As PDA notes, Panetta’s new budget plan sets 2013 spending at $525 billion, which is 46 percent above the 1998 level.” Some cut!

Given the other options being forced in Washington — making cuts to Medicare, Social Security, a host of other good programs — President Obama should be going much further with cuts to the Pentagon. And to the deficit hawks insisting that spending cuts must be priority #1, while at the same time railing against cuts to military spending, here’s a reality check: military spending has been a top contributor to the national deficit, and it’s hard to conjure a credible path to cutting the deficit if military spending isn’t meaningfully on the table. The American public seems to agree.

And when they are asked to choose between defense and other programs, defense is consistently the most popular program to cut.  When CBS/NY Times, on several occasions over the least year asked respondents to choose where they would prefer to cut Medicare, social security or the military, 45-55 percent chose the military, 16-21 percent Medicare, 13-17 percent Social Security.

So do progressive Democrats, as does Dick Armey, a powerful tea party Republican. Gordon Adams thinks bigger cuts are ultimately inevitable.

But defense budgets will come down deeper than the Secretary thinks.  They will come down because Washington is going to have to find about $4 trillion in spending and revenue changes over the next 10 years if the nation’s debt is to stabilize at 60% of GDP.  To find those cuts, everything, including defense, will still be on the table, even after this budget.  And defense budgets will come down because they always do after combat (or “cold combat” in the case of the 1990s), in fact, at a rate of about 30% in constant dollars over 10 years.

The Panetta budget does not get close to that; his “cuts” are roughly 8% of projected defense budgets.  Even if one generously offered to include projected war funding as part of the baseline (and there is no real baseline for wars after FY 2013), the new slope for defense looks like just over 20% of the projected budgets.

A lack of fiscal realism could have harmful consequences for long-term planning. That said, the Secretary’s announcement is a step in a different, more realistic direction, with more to come than he thinks.

Members of Congress are already putting out proposals to undo even these minor reductions. Given the hyper-partisan reaction to any discussion of cuts, even this modest progress made in the Pentagon’s proposal could be reversed. Fortunately, public opinion and the climate of budget cuts are on our side. We’ll be watching the budget battles in 2012, and will alert you when your action can make a difference.

On a related note, David Dayen and Spencer Ackerman note the strategic shift to covert ops and drones represented in this budget. It’s an important reminder that the new face of war, as practiced by the Obama administration, isn’t any prettier than the old one. From Dayen:

During the Obama Presidency we’ve seen the advance of the new American way of war, with covert ops taking precedence over conventional forces. Drones and Navy SEALs are the future; counter-insurgency and its need for large masses of troops may be the past. Basically you’re moving the military from an accountable to an unaccountable position where they have plausible deniability for all their activities.

While many advocates and experts focus on the numbers I think this shift commands a bit more attention.

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  • Laurel

    Hi Reva,
    I have been part of Peace Action for the past couple of years, working as a canvasser and now as a member. I see the fundamental problem of allowing our tax money to go to a bottomless pit available to the Pentagons whims of war, be it Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Somalia…, as the problem that haunts and taunts us throughout all out peace work. My question is, does Peace Action ever lobby to simply cut the defense budget to a level that would not even allow for extra spending beyond defense? This may sound like a silly question, but I ask myself and other’s this all the time, why can’t we regulate this, so that if the Pentagon needed money they would actually have to obtain voter approval directly?

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